Great direction gives Southern remake 'Footloose' hope

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Kenny Wormald, left, and Julianne Hough maintain a certain charm that keeps the film understandable and realistic in “Footloose,” a drama about dancing. (Photo courtesy of Associated Press/Paramount Pictures, K.C. Bailey)

Like any remake, “Footloose” is fighting an uphill battle from its very first frame, trying to live up to the reputation of a classic and win fans over to a new interpretation of a beloved film. Thankfully, “Black Snake Moan” director Craig Brewer turns out to be the right man for the job, and his keen sense of Southern flavor and energetic direction ends up making the newest take on “Footloose” a worthy, if lengthy, follow-up.

Brewer, who also wrote the remake’s screenplay, begins the film with a tragic car wreck that takes the life of five teens, including the son of Reverend Moore (Dennis Quaid). Moore leads a crusade to ban public dancing for the youth of Bomont, Tenn., an easily passed law that goes unchallenged until Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) arrives in town. Thanks to his enduring love of dance, Ren quickly hits it off with the reverend’s rebellious daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough), and the two begin doing their best to restore their right to dance.

Wormald and Hough are largely untested actors, both of them relatively inexperienced in front of the camera outside of Hough’s time on “Dancing with the Stars.” While it’s clear throughout that the pair was cast for their dancing skills and not their thespian prowess, both have a few powerful moments. Hough stands out when she’s asked to play it serious, such as an early scene where the ban on public dancing is handed down, while Wormald has a certain charm to him that lends a sense of realism to Ren and Ariel’s relationship.

Even better is the friendship between new kid Ren and good ‘ol boy Willard, played by Miles Teller. Teller, who was absolutely devastating in last year’s “Rabbit Hole,” gives a funny and flustered performance here. Quaid brings an appropriate amount of pathos to Reverend Smith, and even when the script demands Smith’s actions veer into the cartoonish, Quaid keeps things feeling ground and honest. Ren’s aunt and uncle are played by “Deadwood” alums Ray McKinnon and Kim Dickens and while each of them gets a moment in the spotlight, the always-great Dickens is pretty hugely underused.

What works in “Footloose” works thanks to Brewer. While the director of gritty looks at Southern life such as “Black Snake Moan” and “Hustle & Flow” may not be the first that comes to mind for a “Footloose” remake, Brewer brings a real passion for the story that outweighs how insanely silly the whole thing is. And it really is ludicrous, especially in scenes like Ren’s anger-fueled rage-dance scene or any scene where a character demands the right to dance. Thankfully, Brewer keeps the film moving with such a relentless, infectious energy that even the more ridiculous plot elements are glossed over. Although the film could stand to lose about 20 minutes and oddly enough, contains very few actual dance scenes, Brewer’s skillful portrait of a Southern small town is never quite unpleasant to sit through.

A lot about “Footloose” is silly, from the foundation of the premise to the simplicity of its execution to the soapy behavior of its characters. Nonetheless, Brewer brings a talented, dedicated cast and an endless reserve of enthusiasm to the film that makes it watchable. 

Printed on Friday, October 14, 2011 as: 'Footloose' remake worthy of watching